Writer’s Guilt: I’m an author. Why do I feel guilty for writing? (Sound familiar?)

1000622_worried_man_against_white_backgroundThis one is for my fellow authors: those of us who feel fulfilled, and yet guilty, for writing fiction. Yep: today I wanted to address the topic of writer’s guilt. Chances are you’ve experienced it just as I have.

Feeling guilty for pursuing a career as an author is something that’s always plagued me. While writer’s guilt is related in some ways to the inner editor (my inner editor is a donkey named Eeyore), it’s actually quite distinct.

The inner editor tells you you’re no good at writing, and you’re wasting your time because everything you produce is slop.

Writer’s guilt is knowing you write well, but feeling that you’re selfish, idealistic, and irresponsible for writing when you could be doing something more profitable and practical with your time.

GUILT AND GRADUATE SCHOOL

The guilt hit me hard during my years in graduate school. I excelled in my classes, but the thing about being a graduate student fellow is that you have tons of responsibilities.

  • Teaching, grading, lesson-planning
  • Planning your department’s conference
  • Researching your work and writing papers
  • Trying to present your work at conferences
  • Reading to prepare for your classes and going to class

Graduate school is not the kind of job you can leave at the office and not think about when you’re not on campus. There was always something work-related I could have been doing when I took an hour or two to write my fiction.

Now that I’ve left my department without my PhD (but fluent in Spanish and with a Master’s, which I’m hoping will somehow help me find a job) I’m seeking a meaningful career, and every minute I’m not job hunting, I feel as though I should be (even though there are only so many hours in a row you can job hunt before you go crazy).

We writers all know we likely will never support ourselves financially from our fiction.

We all know we need to give priority, urgency, and dedication to our careers–whatever those may be–and write in our “off-time.”

HOW TO FIGHT THE GUILT

Here are some things I do/did to alleviate my writer’s guilt.

  • I timed out how long to write. I did this in graduate school: I could afford to spend an hour, maybe an hour and a half a day writing, so I made sure I didn’t spend more than that writing. I kept a careful eye on the clock, and when writing time was over, it was over. (This helped me get the most out of my time…. I had a “deadline” to meet.)
  • I kept my work life organized with daily to-d0 lists. This prevented me from dropping the ball anywhere, gave me strength to stop writing when writing time was up, and helped me to understand that I was fine taking some time to write during the morning because I was getting everything else done as well.
  • I used additional writing time as a reward. When I ended up with spare time in the evening, after finishing everything I knew I needed to get done for the day, I let myself write more. But that wasn’t a regular thing: work, of course, came first.
  • I ignored the idiots who implied writing fiction was a waste of my time. Because I knew it wasn’t. It fulfilled me and made me ponder life’s big questions, which meant it wasn’t a waste even if I never published. Since I was treating fiction as a hobby–I had to–there was nothing to feel guilty about. I wrote instead of watching lots of tv. (I watch more tv now, I admit. It’s a problem…. One I’m fixing day by day.)
  • I focused on the benefits of having limited writing time, proving to myself I wasn’t writing “too much.” I didn’t burn out on a project, for one. I had time to let a scene settle in my brain before I moved past it to write the next one. And I was able to feel accomplished and productive in other areas of my life besides my fiction.

It’s a strange phenomenon, how we tend to feel guilty for pursuing our dreams and doing something we love just because it doesn’t pay the bills. But many of us know that guilt all too well.

All of us would love to support ourselves financially writing fiction. The fact is, most of us have to treat writing fiction as a hobby, and that’s all right. Devoting some time to “hobbies” is not something to condemn or feel bad about, no matter what your scumbag brain tells you.

When you have to treat fiction as a hobby and you do just that, writing an hour in the morning or ninety minutes at night, that’s not something to feel guilty about.

I’m not sure where this guilt comes from. I think mine is rooted in my perfectionism. Sometimes it’s hard to justify spending time writing when I could use that time to perfect a work project or get a head start on a different one.

Still, when my work is of great quality, I’m meeting all deadlines, and I’m getting no complaints from anyone concerning my work performance, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fiction time.

When I am putting in multiple job applications a day, going on interviews, and actively seeking work, writing time is a good stress relief. It’s a sanity stabilizer. Job hunting is hard, and draining, and receiving multiple rejections a dayΒ  beats a person down.

If writing–right now, that means running my blog and editing/ formatting “Writing for You”–helps me recharge and decompress in order to “keep on keeping on” in the job hunt, then writing is actually beneficial to my work life.

In what ways have you faced writer’s guilt? What do you tell yourself–and others–when people suggest you’re foolish for pursuing your fiction?

This has been one of my more personal posts, but I hope it resonates with a lot of fellow writers and alleviates the guilt! If you enjoyed this post, you might also find Lisa England’s guest post about perfectionism an inspiring read.

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75 responses to “Writer’s Guilt: I’m an author. Why do I feel guilty for writing? (Sound familiar?)

  1. I’ve definitely had writer’s guilt. I’m a stay at home mom but my daughter’s at the age where pretty soon she doesn’t need me to be home when she gets off of school (she’ll be 10 in October). I’ll very soon be at 10 years of no “work” experience outside my home and I’ve been working on trying to pursue my art and writing over the last couple years, but I’ll admit I get a lot of writer’s (and artist’s!) guilt over trying to pursue my dreams over being practical and earning more money. My family isn’t wealthy, often we’re scraping by and I’m forgoing two meals out of the day to make sure everyone else in the household has food till the end of the month. It’s a tough situation to be in some times. I’m lucky that my family is very supportive about my creative pursuits, but that doesn’t always keep the guilt at bay.

  2. An excellent post! I’m a mother of twins and feel guilty spending time away from them to write. Not to mention the additional concerns about how my limited earnings might impact their future. That being said, I want to teach them to follow their dreams and what better way than leading by example?

    • that is very true! leading by example is such a powerful thing…. thanks so much for sharing, Haley. I don’t have kids, but I can imagine that guilt is a real beast…. You can’t be the only parent-author who has to fight it back, I’m sure.

    • Haley,
      I have four kids, twins included, and I constantly feel guilty about writing so much. I think the key really is to get a good schedule and stick to it.

      • schedules can be SOOOO helpful. I’m single, no kids, and I still feel overwhelmed by life and guilty for “ignoring” people. Scheduling in your break and family time, just to make sure you have it and make the most of it, is a great tip I’ve read on a lot of “be happier” lists.

  3. The only time I really face writer’s guilt is during exam season. This time around I traveled to campus almost everyday and spent hours revising for my exams. That meant, when I came home, I didn’t feel bad about blogging or working on my writing projects.

    However, I got back my results the other day, and I was 2% off a 1st, which was gutting, and I thought if I’d just spent a little less time writing and a little more time revising, I might have been able to reach my goal instead of just missing it.

    • You make a great point here… I think writer’s guilt is exacerbated when you can’t put a material “I’ve finished this project” mark on your other obligations. How do you know if you’ve studied enough?

      😦 It sounds to me like you did things the right way, put your exams first, and tried your hardest. Just missing the mark is so painful!!! That’s happened to me too.

      Exams are really tough…. sometimes you prepare and prepare and prepare and the professor just throws something out of left field at you. I remember one class in particular…. the prof was just brutal. He was out to fail us…. He would put questions that we had no notes on and had never discussed once in class.

      That student guilt I feel, like my writer’s guilt, is largely connected with my perfectionism. I have a hard time moving past things that are firmly in the past, which doesn’t help matters…. ugh, my scumbag brain, haha!

      • I had a professor who was exactly the same. He straight told us we weren’t expected to memorize certain things and then they were in the exam. We were really angry.

        I guess it doesn’t matter so much because we’re in our first year and our grades don’t count towards our final degree mark, but it’s still not right.

  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever faced writer’s guilt. I always had to scramble for time to write and was typically surrounded by people telling why I shouldn’t write in the first place. Not sure if I’m lucky or unlucky that my ‘writer’s guilt’ was coming from the people around me instead of myself.

    • 😦 oof! my family has always been supportive of me writing…. though my parents have taken it on themselves to remind me from time to time that I shouldn’t bank of writing for a financial future, which makes sense. My friends have been supportive too.

      I’m the one who tears myself a new one…. I’m not sure which scenario is better, come to think of it. Having people dog on you doesn’t sound like fun.

  5. Such a great post, balancing work, school and writing is rough and you have to not let yourself feel like writing should be the one to give up in lieu of more time.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! It really is tough. People like me find it hard to find a line between “writing too much so that it impinges on other obligations” and “writing at all.” I don’t know why it is, but I know I’m not alone there πŸ™‚ There is nothing wrong with doing a bit of writing in the day!

  6. Seriously, are you reading my journal??? Oh man is this post apt for my life! I have TONS of guilt, especially when people ask, “How’s the job search going?” and look askance as I fumble around and admit to writing blog posts and chapters on my novel. I wish I could show results. Sometimes I feel so guilty, I don’t get anything accomplished.

    • Yeah, I’m there too. I do make sure to job hunt…. I’ve actually had 3 interviews this week and I keep filling out application after application…. but job hunting depresses and frustrates everyone. At some point in the day I need to step back and realize it’s ok to write a little bit too πŸ™‚

    • I’m sorry you can relate, but also glad to know I’m not alone πŸ™‚

  7. A lot of my writer’s guilt comes from my feeling that I could be putting my skills and time to better use for the “greater good.” I love writing my fiction (and nonfiction) but it does feel wholly self-indulgent when you consider that there are a lot of people out there healing others, fixing serious problems, teaching a new generation, etc.

    I absolve a little bit of the guilt by trying to at least entertain with my writing, so at least I feel I’ve contributed in the same way as an athlete or musician or graphic artist. Can’t say it always works, but it certainly makes me feel better πŸ™‚

    Great post.

    • Entertaining is good and important. We all need stress relief, something to take our minds off our problems and make us laugh in the middle of a tough time.

      There are lots of ways to contribute to bettering the world through fiction. I write about good, kind characters who make hard sacrifices and do the selfless thing when that’s not easy. I like to think that might inspire someone to contemplate the value of sacrifice and selflessness and reaching out to others.

      I also do some weekly volunteer work on Saturday mornings, which helps me feel like I’m giving back and contributing in a more concrete way. You might already be doing something like that, but if not, that could be something to look into.

  8. Your inner editor is a donkey named Eeyore. Oh, I can relate so well to that.

  9. Writer’s guilt is slowly beginning to dissipate, now that my blog is being read all over the world. At first (with both followers :)) it was hard to justify taking the time.

    Now that I have a larger following (about 400) and follow quite a few blogs, I have a new guilt – that of taking the time to respond – especially with a house full of grandchildren that I haven’t seen in two years.

    I view this as an assignment from the Lord, though, which it is. Hence, it is easier to silence the inner editor. There is a purpose for the writing I do – as well as the comments and replies. There are folks I am supposed to minister to. They won’t come to my house (rather narrow-minded of the folks in Nigeria and Singapore, if you ask me!), so here I sit, tapping away in obedience.

    I love that you named your I.E. I need to come up with a name for mine. The little bagger can be pretty hard one me! “Eyeore” is great, but mine is more of a sharp-faced critical old spinster. Hmm. I’ll have to review the characters I know and see what comes to mind. Perhaps “Aunt March” from Little women!

    Thanks for sharing this personal bit. It’s nice to know that I’m not losing my mind when I deal with guilt…that it’s normal and to be expected. That helps.

    \o/

  10. Great post Victoria! I have four little ones who are always begging for my attention and many other obligations that require me to stop writing and take care of them. I often feel guilty when I’m writing when I could be out at a park or spending time with the hubs. I have scheduled out my time to make sure everyone gets their needs met, mine included. I am blessed to have a husband that is pushing me to accomplish my dreams and goals! Just yesterday I told the rest of my family and friends what I’ve been up to when I couldn’t go hang out with them. Scary! So far, no one has said a word. But that’s probably because I haven’t given them a chance to. We just have to set aside all those naysayers, most especially when we’re the ones putting ourselves down. There’s a time for guilt and there’s a time to give guilt a solid shove and the bird.

    • I love everything you say here. Planning things out to make sure everyone–including you–is provided for is a great idea. And yea for your awesome hubs! Aww!!!! πŸ™‚

      You are so right…. there is definitely a time to give the guilt a shove and the bird!

  11. Pingback: RT~Do you Feel Guilty as an author? | Tales From The Fifth Tower

  12. Victoria, Yes I do feel guilty sometimes as a writer (even though I’m employed in retail.) However, we are providing a valuable service and that is an escape from the real world. Fictional writing allows people to use their imagination, a function rarely used on the job or day-to-day living.

    Furthermore, the next time someone inquire about you “wasting time” ask them if they’ve seen the Harry Potter Movies or Twilight…etc. The point is, if they have those films are based on fictional writing and without them there would be a lot less movies out there.

    I’m sure musicians could be lumped in the same category. Groups like Metallica who put out an album, go on tour playing their music and for what? Entertainment! An escape from everyday life. That’s who we are and yes we provide a valuable service!!

  13. My story of writer’s guilt: Long ago, when I had graduated from high school and hadn’t yet found the courage to go to college, I signed up for a correspondence course on writing fiction. I still lived with my parents and they didn’t mind my taking the course, especially since I was using my own money for it. My instructor liked the progress I was making in the course. None of my friends or relatives told me I shouldn’t be taking the course. But I felt guilty about taking it and gave it up. Where did the guilt come from? As a person of faith, you can perhaps understand this: I kept having these thoughts that writing fiction was basically lying, and lying was a sin, so writing fiction was a sin.

    Now, decades later, it’s still difficult to cope with such thoughts. But I keep telling myself that the urge to write fiction is there for a reason, and to deny it is like hiding one’s talents under a bushel.

    I do a lot of writing for my job, but it’s non-fiction, so I have no problem with it. One could say that I’ve not hidden my talents, because I write. But I still have the urge to write fiction. That urge hasn’t gone away. And so I’m determined not to deny it any longer.

    But I still worry: Should I only write fiction with a message, even though I have no particular urge to do so? Should I avoid certain “mature” topics in my fiction, even though the fiction I have the urge to write now is rife with “mature” themes? How can I be so conflicted about my writing?

    I think what I need to do is write what’s in my head and trust that it’s the right thing. Because if I write anything else, it won’t satisfy “the urge.”

    • I definitely get where you’re coming from. I don’t feel guilty nowadays writing fiction as a person of faith, but I’ve gone through some periods where I’ve questioned the content of what I was writing. I try to write fiction I believe is spiritually healthy in its way…. fiction I hope will spark contemplation of faith-based and religious themes. I try to avoid mature topics as a general rule.

      I think fiction can be wonderfully supportive and uplifting. There’s nothing sinful about writing fiction…. it can honestly bring out the best in us, I think: teach us the importance of bravery, and sacrifice, and holding on in the tough times. It can demonstrate the value of values, if that makes sense. That’s what fiction is for.

      There’s nothing wrong with creating art in and of itself. After all, creation is God’s territory and what God does. Being made in his image and likeness, creating art is one way we can imitate God in our own lives. At least, that’s how I feel as a Catholic Christian.

  14. I was feeling this last night! All day I’d been psyching myself up for a night at home writing, then when I got off work I had a text from a friend inviting me to her place for dinner and boardgames… but I made my excuses, because I really wanted to write. I suggested we catch up on the weekend to assuage some of the guilt but it didn’t help hugely.

    • I have SOOO been there, Emily! Sometimes when the muse is calling, you have to answer πŸ™‚ I hope you don’t feel too bad and that you have a blast with your friend this weekend!

  15. When I retired from work, the most common question aimed at me by former colleagues, acquaintances, friends that I don’t see so often these days, family and in particular in-laws has been: “What are you doing now that you’ve retired?” or its variant “How do you manage to fill your time?” At first, I would reply honestly that I took photographs and wrote, which was usually greeted with speechless silence and barely concealed disapproval. Then I got smart. Now I tell people that I spend my time wandering around the countryside, hitting a small white ball with a stick with the aim of making it go into a succession of small holes cut at strategic points in the ground. That seems to make a whole lot more sense to them and I don’t feel so guilty any more.

    • hahahaha! oh heavens…. golf πŸ™‚ why in the world do people think photography and writing–art forms, true art–are wastes of time and golf isn’t? I’m not saying golf’s a waste, or that sports are pointless, but art is definitely not any less pointless than sports are! πŸ˜›

  16. Nice. Kinda sums up my feelings about my writing.
    Writers’ guilt sucks. Especially when you’re barely scraping by, while trying to build a business. I agree, it’s hard to push the ‘things I could be doing’ list aside so you can concentrate on something that in a way helps you focus on your life better. Kind of like a little vacation or a power nap.
    Going to reblog this. Typing with a strained wrist is painful business. So I’ll just borrow your nicely worded thoughts. πŸ™‚

    • I’m so glad the post resonated with you! You’re welcome to reblog. I hope your wrist feels better and your business takes off. I really, really admire entrepreneurs.

      I don’t have the courage to try to freelance or start a business myself. Wish I did! Maybe someday, though πŸ™‚

      • I did like the post! πŸ™‚ And it fit so well with some feelings I have been fighting when it comes to ‘stealing’ time out of my day to write. It’s easier when I phrase it as ‘making future money’. One of these days some of these writing projects will be put out into ebook form. Even if it’s just a few dollars a day, it will still be income.
        The logic works for quieting My brain, anyway. lol

        Thanks. The entrepreneurial spirit is really just channeled desperation. We have both been out of full time jobs for so long, with so many applications floating out there, it’s just come to the point where we’ve decided to aim all this energy toward something of our own.

        • sometimes that might be the best solution! creative problem solving: that’s what we writers are good at, and that’s one of the main skills writing fiction develops. See: your writing is good for something more than future money! πŸ™‚

  17. Reblogged this on Rose's Road and commented:
    Well said! πŸ˜€
    .

    Also, I seem to have strained my right wrist. Yep. Taking out the trash can be hazardous to you health. πŸ™‚ lol
    I still managed to add 1,960 new words to the WIP before the pain set in, though. Tomorrow may have another outcome, though. We shall see, I guess.

  18. Oh how I needed to tead this today! I had one of those days where I questioned why I even bother to write, where I felt like even if I finally did publish my book, no one would ever buy it. That I don’t spend enough time with my kids or my husband. So thanks for sharing. I feel much better now.

    • I’m glad you feel better and that the post was timely! It definitely helps me to remember on those days that we all feel that way on occasion. It stinks, but at least it’s common and nothing unique to me. That helps me ignore the guilt to a greater degree.

  19. Reblogged this on Cindy Ray Hale and commented:
    Once more, Victoria Grefer says it well.

  20. Mine wasn’t as much guilt as it was fear that people wouldn’t understand, or would think it’s a waste of time. The more I just embrace it as who I am, the funner it is.

    But seriously, i can totally relate to this post.

    • I’m glad you found it relatable! You’re so right: sometimes you just have to remind yourself what other people think doesn’t matter, and delve wholeheartedly into your writing. It makes the experience SO much more fun, exactly like you say πŸ™‚

  21. Pingback: On Fiction and Blogs: The Biggest Way Blogging Has Helped Me As An Author | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  22. I consider writing–and all art–to be a very worthy vocation. I know that society is full of harmful stereotypes about artists–that we’re self indulgent, lazy, broke, impractical, etc. But I believe that our stories can change people’s lives, that through storytelling, we can heal people, deepen their self understanding, even simply entertain them. That’s no less worthy than other occupations.

    I do sometimes feel guilty about not spending enough time with my family, especially when I’m really caught up in a writing project. But it’s my husband who reminds me that I want to help people through my stories.

    Great post! I will be sure to include it in my next mash-up on my blog. πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, Denise! I’m so glad you stopped by to remind us all about the healing power and value of art. It’s easy to overlook that when you’re an artist, but it’s so very, very true. Art matters. It always has and it always will.

  23. Pingback: On writing: the guilt we all feel | According to Dave

  24. Reblogged this on Being an Author and commented:
    Many of us struggle with this. Thank Victoria Grefer for this post. http://crimsonleague.com/2013/07/11/writers-guilt-im-an-author-why-do-i-feel-guilty-for-writing-sound-familiar/

  25. Pingback: Writer’s Guilt: I’m an author. Why do I feel guilty for writing? (Sound familiar?) | Being an Author

  26. Pingback: Vacation: Embracing the Pause That Refreshes | change it up editing

  27. I feel so much better about this, knowing that I just googled “writer’s guilt” and your blog post came up. And by “feeling better” I mean resigned to feeling guilty all the time.

    I think the mot critical part for me, especially while unemployed, is the time allocation. So when my husband comes home and asks “So what did you do today?” my automatic response is “Nothing.” Perhaps that’s part of the guilt complex, is that I have not allowed myself to feel like what I’m doing is useful in any way. I think if I start blocking my time more efficiently I’ll learn to just deal with it.

    • I do think that is key. I need to block my time more efficiently too! So that I feel less guilty, maybe. I really do feel like I’m getting nothing of value accomplished when I’m writing. Which isn’t really true.

      Should I be writing ten hours a day while I’m unemployed? Probably not. But one or two hours is okay…. especially if it keeps me sane and gives me energy and positivity to bring to other things. “Real life” things, you know?

  28. My children are gown. My husbands fled. I write guilt free now.

  29. Pingback: Three Writer “Illnesses” (and how to treat them) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  30. Pingback: On Authorial “Frauditis” | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  31. Pingback: Three Ways Writing Fiction Is An Adventure in the Fairy Tale Style | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  32. Pingback: 10 Ways to Kick Writer’s Guilt to the Curb | Writing and Wellness

  33. I like writing Swahili stories and poem

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